As the mastermind behind tUnE-yArDs, Merrill Garbus epitomizes the unconventional success story. Begun as a one-woman, lo-fi–embracing DIY project, tUnE-yArDs has moved from cultish buzz act to fully realized — and almost full-band–backed — musical endeavor, thanks in large part to 2011’s stunning sophomore release, W H O K I L L. The record itself is an exuberant and herky-jerky 10-track collection that pulls as much from Garbus’s folk upbringing as it does from her more recent travels to Kenya. It’s also brimming with the kind of literate, worldly, and personal lyricism that sticks with you long after the album’s closer. And that’s only half the story.
Garbus was born in Connecticut to parents who both dabbled in folk music. “My mom has been reminding me that she taught me piano from age 6 to age 13. She’s like, ‘How come you never talk about that in interviews?’” Garbus laughed when we spoke last week via phone. “I think hearing my mom practice and hearing the piano around so much, I’m sure that I absorbed far more than I realized. That being said, I also thought, ‘Well, that’s not a job.’ I never got the sense that it was a viable career.”
In her formative years, Garbus moved to upstate New York, then Memphis, eventually landing in Massachusetts to study theater at Smith College. In the years between, music continued to play a role, even as she abandoned her parents’ Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder records for artists like A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, and Digable Planets. “For a lot of people in my generation, I feel like [that teenage rebellion music] was punk rock,” Garbus pondered. “I definitely dabbled in the Ramones, and that felt good at the time, but I think where I sort of veered off was hip-hop. That was where my parents were like, ‘Oh, we don’t really get this, but great. Go for it.’”
After school, Garbus spent years pursuing a career in puppetry, took on a job as a nanny, and dabbled in teaching before exploring music as a career. She moved from New England to Montreal to join friend Patrick Gregoire (of Islands fame) and gravitated toward the ukulele. The loop pedals followed soon after, and before long, Garbus was a staple at open-mike nights and DIY showcases. Then came BiRd-BrAiNs, a striking and simplistic self-release that found Garbus delivering her deeply personal tales via Dictaphone. One show-stealing tour with the Dirty Projectors later, and tUnE-yArDs were heading west to Oakland and signing to 4AD.
Flash forward to 2011, and we re-meet W H O K I L L, an album that’s about as palatably unconventional as they come. Throughout the record, Garbus touches on subjects ranging from police brutality (“Doorstep”) to sexual roles (“Powa”) to body issues (“Es-So”). As she explains of the writing process: “I think at a certain point there were themes of violence and themes of distress and other things that were coming from Oakland and from my experience living here, in this pretty intense urban environment. … I had this idea that the record was going to be called Women Who Kill from a pretty early phase. My intention originally was to have a lot of women guest artists and to maybe try to make a point, like saying, ‘These are voices that you don’t hear as often, and they are going to freaking rock your world.’”
Instead, W H O K I L L turned into a collaboration between Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner. “It was more abstracted and less about, ‘Let me pummel you with some issue that I’m trying to get you to understand,’ and more, ‘Let me invite you into this world and you can take from it what you will,’” she explained. It also proved to be the perfect vehicle to distribute Garbus’s songwriting to the masses. With the help of Brenner, Garbus injected a brass section into W H O K I L L’s melting pot of sounds. Like BiRd-BrAiNs, the album is rich with the Afrobeat and Caribbean percussion that Garbus has long drawn inspiration from. It also carries hints of ’80s pop (she cites Michael Jackson as a large influence), hip-hop, and ’60s doo-wop, all anchored by Garbus’s elastic and androgynous vocals. “I’m drawn to dissonance often; I’m drawn to things sounding quote-unquote long and anything that feels like something is being turned musically upside-down — that’s where I feel like music is compelling to me,” she explained.
“I’m a real fuddy-duddy when it comes to new music,” she continued, admitting that she has no interest in Pitchfork or the quote-unquote Next Big Thing. The decision is not only a conscious one but something that provides even more insight into Garbus’s unconventional worldview.
“I think what gets left behind in [the music industry] is a lot of wisdom and people’s experiences, especially for women,” she explained. “I’m not exactly looking forward to being a middle-aged woman in this society, and I’ve been trying to grapple with that. I’m looking down the pike of being a middle-aged woman performer, and I feel like it’s a changing time in that regard, but I’ve also just been thinking about how I want to be conscious of people older than me and what they have to offer. That goes for being schooled musically, but also being schooled in life.”
On Sunday, April 15, at 9 p.m., tUnE-yArDs play an all-ages show at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.). Call 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets and info.